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Runaway teens are on the rise in Surprise

LISTEN: Runaway teens are on the rise in Surprise

Parents and guardians in a Phoenix suburb are turning to police more frequently now to report their missing teenagers. The Surprise Police Department noticed a 37 percent increase in reported runaway juveniles from 2014 to 2015.

In 2014, 75 teens ran away a combined 93 times, according to the Surprise Police Department. In 2015, there were 109 runaway juveniles reported. In that instance, the children ran away a combined 167 times. The number indicates roughly 25 percent of the runaway teenagers investigated by police, did so more than once last year.

“Starting in 2015, we started putting our runaway juveniles out on social media,” Sergeant Norm Owens said.

From the department’s Facebook page, Twitter and on neighborhood sites like NextDoor.com, each reported case of runaways is investigated and put out to the public.

“The information, today, is getting reported a little bit faster and more efficiently,” he added.

The reasons why teens in Surprise are leaving their homes in greater numbers are hard to tell, but the department has a goal in mind with each case: get the child back home as soon as possible.

Homeless youth are at a higher risk of facing challenges once out on the street. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, runaway teens are more susceptible to become victims of physical abuse, sexual exploitation, mental health disabilities, substance abuse and death.

“We know the longer that they’re out there, the higher the risk will be that they become victims of something else,” Owens said.

According to the police department, the majority of the runaway teens they search for return home shortly after they leave their homes.

Consequences for runaway juveniles vary by state and jurisdiction. Police departments do have the authority to cite teens into juvenile court for running away. According to the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, they are dealt through the probation department. Though not a criminal offense, running away is considered an “incorrigible offense” and may be subject to discipline.

In all of Arizona in 2014, the latest data available, 2,525 teens were arrested for running away, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety ‘Crime in Arizona Report 2014‘. Of those, the majority were between the ages of 13 and 17, and nearly as many female teens ran away from home than males. According to the report, 1,275 males juveniles were arrested compared to 1,250 females arrested. In that report, runaway data is defined as the “unlawful truancy from a legal place of resident by a juvenile”. 

In 2015 there were 33,106 runaway juveniles came across law enforcement. Nearly 23,000 were referred to juvenile court or probation departments in different jurisdictions, 8,676 were released and the others were referred to either criminal or adult court, or another police or welfare agency.

Information about runaway teens is also entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, which is a national database. Once the juvenile returns home, the entry is removed. The social media post by Surprise Police is also taken down once the juvenile comes back home.

“We don’t want to make them potential victims,” Owens said.

The response from the public to the postings of runaways on social media has, for the most part, been positive, according to Owens. The result has led to increased awareness of runways and has led other residents to question, through social media comments and responses, whether there is a problem with runaway teens in the city. In many cases parents are being blamed online for their teens running away.

“When they are located, in cases where we may suspect something else going on in the home, we’ll investigate further,” Owens said.

Returning a runaway home is not the end of the road for the police. They provide families with a packet of information to help guide them deal with problems that may cause children to run away. If the family is in need of victim services or counseling, the packet includes contact information and helpful tips.

“It’s critical that we’re able to locate these children quickly and get them back home so that they can remain safe,” Owens.

The police department remains dedicated to putting out information about juveniles running away, hoping the public can come together and help find them. The public can contact the department at 623-222-4000 or 623-222-TIPS. Another option is through anonymous email at crimetips@surpriseaz.gov.

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